It’s pretty funny when Thais try to speak English. The language barrier is massive. It’s not like the simple English-to-Spanish language barrier, where you just add an ‘a’ to guitar and you’ve got guitara. No, it’s much deeper than that. And when a brave Thai soul tries to cross the language moat that divides us, it begs the question: Why can’t Thai people speak English?
All Thai people trying to speak English face the same road blocks. There’s no audible difference between R’s and L’s. Rabbit is pronounced, Labbit. Leader is pronounced, Reader. The words ‘flute’ and ‘fruit’ sound the exact same to Thai people.
The letter V has a W sound. There’s no TH sound in their language. My father is so important’ is comically skewed to My fodder is sooo impotent! Most Thai people are eager to learn English, but the challenge is immense. The two languages have incredibly different vowel and consonant sounds.
Thai people are generally better at writing English than they are speaking it. Still, even the most proficient English-writing Thai person can produce some funny Thai signs.
Speaking in Tones
Thai is spoken with intonation, and it’s practically impossible to hear if you’re an English speaker. It sounds like Thais are singing during their everyday conversations. In the middle of a sentence, they’ll suddenly raise their voice in the same way an English-speaker does when asking a question. Then they’ll drastically lower their voice midway through the next word, sounding almost like they’re pissed off.
When an English-speaker tries to speak Thai, it’s like a tone-deaf person belting out a song that everyone else around them sings beautifully.
Thai people crack up at my futile attempts to converse in their mother tongue. I’ll say, ‘Khun suwai’ to a Thai lady, which means ‘You’re beautiful.’ I didn’t realize that ‘Khun suwai’ also translates to ‘Bad luck to you’ if spoken with the wrong intonation.
I was wishing bad luck on little old Thai ladies without realizing it! All because I can’t understand the many tones in the Thai language. Most Thais on the receiving end of my gestures understand my intention and laugh. Others give me a wide-eyed glare. It all makes sense in hind sight.
While it’s easy to poke fun of Thais (or any Asian culture) when they attempt to speak English, the feeling is mutual for them with our feeble attempts. The most important thing is the ability to laugh at oneself. “Mai pen rai,” Thai people say. “It’s all good.”